Council candidates, experts and advocates say those at the top must make local government more accessible and a safer space if the country’s local bodies are truly going to reflect New Zealand communities.
There is a lingering sense that local government is pale, stale and masculine. And while research shows representation is diversifying, there’s still a long way to go.
Low pay, workload, lack of inclusion and disconnection from local government powers and affairs are all obstacles.
Meanwhile, the rise in personal attacks on people in public-facing positions is acting as another deterrent to the race.
This has resulted in both a lack of diversity in local government across the motu and a general lack of engagement.
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Among current mayors, councilors and other elected members, 40.5% are women, compared to 50.4% for the general population; 13.5% are Māori (17.1% of the general population) and representation of multi-ethnic and Pacific communities remains low.
The average age of elected officials is 56 to 60 years old, with only 13.9% under 40 years old. This despite the average age of the general population which is 37.9 years.
At the same time, low turnout in local elections has declined over the past four decades.
In 2019, the share of eligible Kiwis who voted in local elections was just 41.7%, raising questions of democratic legitimacy. This contrasts sharply with an 82% voter turnout in the 2020 general election.
First-time local government candidate Sylvia Yang said the lack of diverse representation needed to change, but there were barriers to bringing young people, migrants and people from ethnic minorities into the council.
In 2018, Auckland gained its first-ever Chinese-Kiwi councilor – Paul Young. He remains the only Chinese-New Zealand adviser in Auckland.
This is despite growing populations of Chinese and Asian migrants. In 2018, people of Asian descent made up 16% of the country’s population. This figure is expected to reach 26% by 2014.
And in Auckland, 44% of people are likely to identify with an Asian ethnicity in 2043, according to projections by Stats NZ.
Yang – a 39-year-old Kiwi of Chinese descent – said she wanted to “follow the example” and encourage people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and age groups to run.
Some people did not understand the activities and purpose of local government, due to a lack of accessible information. Others lacked the capacity to take on extra work, she said.
But given what the world has been through in the past two years, “maybe it’s time to change all that.”
Counselors spoke at length about the constant abuse and personal attacks. But for Yang, it was a reason to run. “It pushes me.”
There was a disconnect between the experiences of ethnic minorities and the Pākehā world, she said.
“I don’t know if I can be the bridge or be a little brick on that bridge. I hope more people will join this force and be bricks to close this gap.
Former Wellington Council candidate and disability advocate Humphrey Hanley said the value of lived experience was “irrefutable”.
Hanley, who is a member of Wellington City Council’s Accessibility Advisory Group, said no one wanted anyone else to speak on their behalf.
But current structures meant there were too many barriers for people with disabilities to join local government.
The cost of campaign finance was prohibitive for some. And attending candidate events in inaccessible places immediately puts people with physical disabilities on an uneven playing field. “We cannot participate on an equal platform. It is an unconscious barrier to equality.
Until those in power make it safe and accessible for people with disabilities to apply, the problems will persist, he said.
A 2020 LGNZ survey looked at demographics of age, gender, ethnicity, income and education, but did not look at the representation of people with disabilities. While there is no new data, advocates said there is a leadership gap for people with disabilities.
This year, Auckland Council launched an accessibility strategy to help candidates and voters by providing things like help with filling out forms and sign language translators.
Hanley has epidermolysis bullosa (EB), a rare genetic skin condition, which means he has different needs when it comes to issues at the heart of local government policy, such as transport , housing and street safety.
About one in four New Zealanders have some form of disability, but this is not reflected in local government. And the lack of representation at the highest level has deterred people from showing up. “It’s a vicious cycle,” Hanley said.
Local government expert and former Palmerston North mayoral candidate Dr Andy Asquith said New Zealanders do not fully appreciate the strength and power of local government.
“Part of it goes back to that mindset in New Zealand that local government is about rats, tariffs and rubbish.”
The legislation gave local governments sweeping powers to implement policies and regulations aimed at improving the “four well-beings”: economic, social, cultural and environmental.
But the lack of vision among councilors and council officials has translated into a lack of public engagement and desire to stand up to local government bodies, he said.
“I think New Zealand deserves better local government than it has. The caliber of many people in local government leaves much to be desired,” he said.
Chief Executive of Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), Susan Freeman-Greene, said these problems had accumulated over time.
In an effort to make Aotearoa a more inclusive and active local democracy, LGNZ was launching a campaign focused on increasing diversity and voter turnout.
“That’s bold ambition, and we know it will take more than one election cycle to deliver lasting change,” Freeman-Greene said.
The current review of the future of local government provides an opportunity to address these issues.
But one of the biggest challenges was that people didn’t realize that serving on local councils offered an opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives, she said.
The new campaign, called Vote 22, championed local government as a place for everyone ahead of the October election.
“This year, things need to change to deliver local democracy that represents all communities, especially after this pandemic,” Freeman-Greene said.
LGNZ Chairman Stuart Crosby said people need to know more about their local candidates, consider their motivations and vision, and make their voices heard when voting.
“Now is not the time for people to switch off. It is time for everyone to be heard and included; to shape the community they live in as Aotearoa seeks to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. 19,” Crosby said.